From his water-laden branch,
Hidden among protective leaves,
The chickadee stares down
At the strange cyclops below;
His grasp on the limb
Is tenuous at best,
Close enough for details
Distanced for quick escape.
The one-eyed beast is calm,
Open to new connections,
Seeking only an audience
With his avian companion.
Words are unspoken, unnecessary,
As a bond is formed
In the hush of gentle rain,
Whispers of waving branches
Broken only by buzz-clicks
Of monocular blinks.
For this instant, this
Sodden, frozen moment,
Relationships are formed,
Connections are made,
Eventually to dissolve
Into photographic memory,
But vitally important
Both to he and to me,
Shared in wonder and awe.
I cannot see the ground.
A layer of cloud obscures the view,
Keeping me from seeing the truth below,
Presenting only an illusion of solidity.
The world is smooth beneath me,
Imperfections and character lines
Obliterated by mists of water and ice,
A frozen mask of uniformity, of sameness.
I can only speculate what lies beneath,
Plumb the depths with imagination as my guide,
Probing fingers of thought descending into darkness;
Questioning, questing; wondering, wandering.
Even in my fear of the known to be,
There is faith in wonders ahead,
Where distance and time are not enemies,
But rather opportunities to explore and discover.
Even as some journeys end and others press on,
My next adventure arises in the unknown,
And with each step, my spirit is renewed;
When I have told a story well, I have merely put in place the elements from which you will create your own version of the story.
You meld these elements with your own perspectives, histories, moods and experiences to go places that I can’t begin to imagine.
In this way, Art is a communal exponential experience, and the Universe is as blessed by the one who receives the gift as by the one who first shares it.
If you read enough—screenplays, novels, articles, poetry—your mind can go numb to the sameness of storytelling, whether in subject, structure, narrative style or innumerable facets you no longer see.
As a storyteller, I dread the idea that my work falls into that category, and yet I know some of it does.
The urge, therefore, is to come up with ways to surprise the reader, to give their eyes, minds and souls something they have never experienced before.
We are creatives, so why should we not be creative?
How can I shake things up in my storytelling to dazzle the reader?
What if my characters all spoke in limericks? What if I wrote my action descriptions as music? What if I named my characters using the military alphabet (see M*A*S*H)?
Yeah, what if you did any of those things?
Novelty and expectation
The biggest challenge in going with your own style is that it absolutely has to work. There is no middle ground.
Out of the gate, you are going to piss off traditionalists: 1) they expect to read things in a certain way and don’t embrace change easily; and 2) they see your decision not as innovative, but rather as the act of a storyteller wrapped up in his or her ego.
Who are you to think of yourself as above the law?
(Very melodramatic, these traditionalists.)
Even with readers willing to go on a ride, however, you’re going to need to prove that your method is worth the effort, that it brings something to the storytelling experience that a more traditional approach does not or cannot.
In a recent Go Into The Story blog post, Scott Myers looks at how the writers of Wall-E used a very unconventional, almost poetic style for their scene descriptions. Offering examples from the screenplay, Myers shows how simplifying the descriptions allowed the writers to focus on what the heart felt rather than what the eye saw. In the process, they created a very fluid and impactful read.
Up for the challenge?
So, should you rush back to your manuscript and do the same thing? Or do an equivalent that best suits your specific narrative?
The answer to those two questions is unfortunately two other questions.
Is there an appropriate equivalent? And can you pull it off?
Even if there is an alternative way to present your story, you may not yet be ready to effectively execute it.
Your writing skills may yet require some seasoning until you can effectively pull off non-traditional approaches to storytelling.
Alternatively, you may be approaching this challenge with the wrong (I hate to use that word) mindset; that you’re seeking novelty for the sake of novelty and not because it will enhance the power of your story.
That said, if you really want to try something new, if you really want to challenge yourself, then go for it.
Go for it
Nothing is permanent. Versions can be saved. You can always retell the story in a more traditional manner.
Even if it doesn’t work, you have improved your storytelling skills for the experience.
And ultimately, to counter my earlier point about others’ reactions, most of us tell stories because we have a passion for storytelling. The business of storytelling is secondary.
I welcome and encourage you to continue to explore that passion, both for your own happiness and because that is how you will create the truly remarkable.
To learn more about effective storytelling, as well as the power of story analysis and story coaching, visit:
So, What’s Your Story? (web site)
So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)
No matter where you are in your writing career, your work can almost always be helped by feedback from fresh eyes that do not have a vested interest in the work itself.
Story analysis can help you see challenges in your story that might be invisible to you, whether through inherent biases or because you see the story clearer in your head than it has been recorded on the page.
Story analysis can also help you see opportunities in your work that you overlooked, if only because you are too close to it. Your priority for that early draft, in all likelihood, was simply to get things out of your head and onto the page, and we all walk with the fear of wandering down so many blind alleys that we never come out of the other end, wherever that end may be.
So fine, story analysis is helpful. But what the hell is story coaching?
Almost by definition, story analysis happens AFTER you have completed a draft (or several). It comes AFTER you have wandered the desert of creative confusion. It comes AFTER you have bled your creative juices onto the page and have become smitten with your creation.
And in some very unfortunate cases, it never comes at all, because the storyteller never completed the project, whether due to fear of failure, a sense of being intractably lost, or simply because Life intervened to distract from the task at hand.
This is where story coaching can help.
Story coaching is about a work-in-progress, whether a screenplay, a novel, the writer him or herself…whatever the storyteller needs most.
As with life coaching, business coaching or athletics coaching, story coaching is about providing guidance to the storyteller on a regular basis, whether simply as a second set of eyes to critique the work or as a mentor who uses the work-in-progress as a framework within which to help the storyteller develop as an artist.
Story coaching is also about commitment and accountability for the storyteller.
By hiring a story coach, the writer has made his or her creative art a priority in life. Why else spend the money?
And working with the storyteller, the story coach establishes expectations and deliverables, whether that is new story ideas, number of newly written pages, rewrites. These are the foundations of creative habits that can be difficult to develop and entrench in solitude because the creative process is so personal and fraught with self-doubt and self-recrimination.
But I can get this from a writing course or a writers’ group.
Yes, this is true…to an extent.
Writing classes can be invaluable, depending on the composition of your classmates and the skill of your instructor.
With a roomful of students, however, it can be difficult for the instructor to provide truly focused guidance to an individual student. More typically, the student is presented with a spectrum of general direction, all of which can be valuable but only some of which may be germane to a given work-in-progress.
Writers’ groups can also be a wonderful resource, again depending on the composition of the group. That composition and the individual writer’s position within the skill hierarchy, however, are critical.
Most writers’ groups are comprised of peers with relatively equal experience, and so may not be able to provide the more advanced analysis and mentorship that an individual wants or needs. And if an individual is the most advanced or skilled within a given writers’ group, he or she may find little opportunity for improvement.
[NOTE: I firmly believe that you will always find something in the feedback of any group of readers. The question is more whether it is worth the effort you put into the group.]
Although it is not impossible, you are very unlikely to ever become a professional football or hockey player by spending any amount of time playing flag football or pond hockey with friends. Why would we expect storytelling to be any different?
How do I know a story coach is right for me?
You don’t. Well, you don’t until you start a conversation with him or her.
Oh, hey! Is the story coach going to try to tell me what stories to tell?
The story coach is here to understand what story you want to tell or help you understand it better yourself, and then help you tell it in the most effective manner.
You are the Creator. The story coach is not.
If you want to learn more about Story Coaching, feel free to reach out to me (no obligation) at:
So, What’s Your Story? (web site)
So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)
Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.
I was intrigued.
Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.
Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.
The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.
Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.
The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).
As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.
After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.
Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.
As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.
I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.
The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.
“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian
“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times
The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:
“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”
Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.
And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.
But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.
And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).
The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.
Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)
Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)
‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)